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――The morning of their departure had arrived.
One day had been allocated for rest, and it was now two days after the prior arrangements and the information gathering.
At the entrance to the town of Mirula, Subaru and the others had gathered with their respective equipment on, having finished their preparations to cross the Sand Dunes with their respective equipment on. Gazing at the dragon carriage, Subaru let out a sigh of admirable
Subaru: “Wow, this is…”
Julius: “A ground dragon to cross the Sand Dunes――the Gyras species is a species that shines on sandy soil. Their species is adapted to Sand Wind and dryness alike, characterized by large figures and gentle demeanor. You will find that this endemic species has an easy-to-handle nature.”
As Subaru looked at the ground dragons tied to the dragon carriage with eyes widened, Julius added an explanation.
They had to break through the Augria Sand Dunes, so that they could reach Pleiades Watchtower. The legs of a typical ground dragon would not be capable of dealing with the difficulty of treading that path filled with sand.
Therefore, they had exchanged the ground dragons that had brought them this far via the road, and now would have to use the Gyras species of ground dragons, endemic to this land, to carve open a path.
Subaru: “Endemic, huh. There were water dragons in Pristella too, but wow, the world is big.”
Folding his arms, Subaru gazed at the yellow-skinned ground dragon connected to the dragon carriage right in front of him.
Subaru had already spent more than a year in this world. His initial surprise towards the ground dragons had faded, and thought he would never again feel a breed of excitement similar to what he had felt at first, but he’d been too narrow-minded.
A yellow ground dragon, with thorn-like scales all over its body, its head flat. They had a physique similar to Otto’s beloved dragon Frufoo, which was of a species with excellent stamina even among ground dragon; its owner had boasted that it was capable of travelling for three days and three nights. It would perhaps be similar to the triceratops that Subaru knew.
On the other hand, attempting to compare the ground dragon in front of him to similar knowledge would have a person find them rather resembling an ankylosaurus. However, their tails were short, so it seemed like their tails could not be used as weapons, unlike the original’s. Also, what was more characteristic of them, more so than their skin and general looks, were their feet. ――Every end of their four thick, short legs were round, and their sharp claws acted like spikes which moored their bulking bodies to the ground.
Subaru: “It sure does look like their hooves can cause unrecoverable damage to anything they step on.”
Julius: “The grains found in the Augria Sand Dunes are fine particles. Without feet like this, there would be the possibility of slipping off slopes. People say that the Gyras species’ feet changed to adapt to that.”
Subaru: “So they adapted to the desert areas, eh. They are replacements for horses and camels, but what about water dragons? Thinking hard about it, it’s not like I’ve seen animals pull boats back at the original world.”
He went into deep thought and a swan boat came to Subaru’s mind, but that was just a boat imitating the form of a swan, and ran on man-made power. However, he’d never heard of a custom in which crocodiles or hippopotamuses pulled on boats, so he couldn’t think of any replacement for water dragons. Even beyond that――
Subaru: “These dragons adapted to sandy soil are going there, but can we really bring my Patrasche to a place like that? Can’t do anything unreasonable with the lady of the camp.”
Julius: “Your beloved dragon belongs to the Diana species, which is considered the ancestor of all ground dragons. The founding forefather dragon, dominant on land, sea, and air is present in her lineage… It has excellent adaptability, no matter what the environment is. Unfortunately, my Shaknar will be left at the town.”
Julius answered Subaru’s question, then looked upwards towards the inn with lonesomeness.
Shaknar was Julius’ beloved, beautiful blue-skinned ground dragon.
It was a loving dragon, but it had forgotten about Julius, who had had his name eaten by Gluttony. However, this well-trained dragon would be polite to anyone that rode it, at all times. Even at their one-sided meeting at Pristella, it had been accepting of Julius from the beginning, and it seemed that during this trip that had lasted about a month and a half, an intimate bond much like the one from before had been formed.
For that very reason, he had what you could call feelings of shame for leaving that beloved dragon at the town.
Julius: “Nevertheless, for your beloved dragon to be the lady you use the most out of all the people around you… I do not know if I should praise you for knowing how to use your ground dragon, or if I should complain about your evaluation of the women around you.”
Subaru: “…Actually, you shouldn’t make light of how high Patrasche’s girl power is.”
Julius had an emotional look for a second, so he immediately covered up his feelings with some banter. Subaru also sensed those thoughts of his and went along with it.
Seeing that, Julius went to greet the ground dragon of the dragon carriage whose reins he would be holding. As a response, Subaru looked towards the dragon carriage, stepped towards it, and knocked on the door.
Subaru: “So the inside of the dragon carriage will be left as-is, but the wheels have been replaced and…”
Subaru inspected the remodeled dragon carriage before there was an answer to his knock.
Having said that, the changes that stood out were in the carriage’s inferior structure―― the wheels, and the window frames had installed with sand protection for the Sand Wind.
This dragon carriage, which had been devised for long-distance journeys, was something like an RV with its multipurpose features. Inside and at the front of the carriage, there was a row of seats, and the middle and backsides were exceptionally good to simply chill.
On top of it ensuring comfort, it could hold up to ten people at max. Subaru was honestly surprised by how the dragon carriage easily surpassed his expectations on first sight.
Subaru: “Without electricity and electrical appliances, those tools can be replaced with magic stones. Humans really are creatures that seek convenience anywhere.”
???: “――I do not know what you are talking about so seriously, but are the preparations finished, Barusu?”
While he was puzzled at the exterior, the dragon carriage’s door opened, and a cold voice poured down at the same time.
Turning around, there was Ram, standing up from the seat closest to the door, looking down on Subaru.
Subaru: “Well, the previous preparations were finished yesterday, so it’s ready. Next, we’ve got to prepare our hearts and bodies, but I’m also done with that. How about you?”
Ram: “Let’s see. Considering how many days we will be in this carriage, no amount of care will quell this feeling of lack of safety. Ram will not cry for help as a delicate person in the middle of the sand dunes, even if attacked.”
Subaru: “――It’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
With Ram narrowing her eyes meaningfully, Emilia then made her appearance having heard them talk. Emilia seemed to have been tidying up the back of the dragon carriage. She then stepped up to Ram’s side, tapping on her shoulder.
Emilia: “No matter what attacks us, I’ll protect everyone in here. There’s Subaru and Julius outside too, so we’ve got everything covered.”
Subaru: “You are as reassuring as always. See, look, Ram. Emilia-tan is saying this too, so don’t worry.”
Ram: “Yes, Emilia-sama. Ram is very reassured as well. However, it will not be just malicious beings that will attack us. Among us there are also those with evil intentions…”
Ram spoke meaningful words, while directing a meaningful look at Subaru.
Once Subaru understood Ram’s look and the underlying meaning of her words, he frowned immediately.
Subaru: “You’re still doubting me like that, even after spending close to one month of peaceful nights!? There’s no way I can do something like that with you around! I don’t have that type of courage!”
Ram: “It is pathetic how you are insisting that with a loud voice, it is not unthinkable for you to lose control of yourself because of how beautiful it is in this carriage. Ram is always afraid. Sympathize with a maiden’s heart.”
Subaru: “Always afraid? Not always threatening people?”
Ram basically repeating the saying that boys and girls should be separated once they turned seven, had caused Subaru’s voice to shake. Incidentally, Emilia did nothing but tilt her head in confusion.
It was Emilia’s usual EMTness, and Ram’s insolence. However, as there was something bothering him, Subaru scratched his head unenergetically with an “Ah”,
Subaru: “Nee-sama, how’s your physical condition?”
Ram: “…Weird of you to ask that. Why do you wonder?”
Subaru: “Your worry is unnecessary, but is mine unnecessary? I just want to know the answer to that.”
Ram: “Barusu, you sure are cheeky with how attentive you are.”
She did not have a pale face, and it did not seem like she was having trouble breathing, and albeit Ram appeared to be acting like her usual self, she had not denied Subaru’s words.
She did not act tough, nor had she attempted to hide it. In that sense, Ram was being surprisingly sincere.
Subaru: “Looks like your wicked tongue doesn’t have its usual sharpness. If your body’s condition really is bad, then…”
Ram: “After having spent twenty days to reach this place, you expect me to stomp my feet with the objective at hand? It is the same as usual, but today you are being particularly ridiculous.”
Emilia: “Ram, don’t speak like that.”
Ram interrupted Subaru, directing him an even fiercer look. Emilia raised her eyebrows at that girl’s behavior, putting hands on her hips like she was angry.
Standing next to Ram, she pointed her hand towards Subaru while being next to Ram and spoke,
Emilia: “Subaru is worried about Ram. I’m also worried about you. Everyday I’m giving the treatment Roswaal told me about, but…”
Subaru: “Still unsure if you can call it treament, but it’s not like it’s your specialty. Even if Emilia-tan and Beako both do it, they can’t do it as well as Roswaal.”
Ram: “…Not trying to use that as a reason. I do not want to be a bother.”
Subaru: “We are worried, you know?”
Ram: “If you were the usual Barusu, then I could fool you.”
Subaru: “You aren’t the usual Ram, so you can’t fool me.”
They weren’t inflammatory tit-for-tat words, nor were they comebacks.
Anyhow, there was a quiet exchange of words, and Ram bit her lips in a seemingly displeased way at the way Subaru spoke. However, there was a lack of vigor in the eyes she stared at him with.
She probably was aware of it herself. Ram let out a sigh and looked inside of the carriage. There was a wheelchair right next to her seat, a single girl placed on it.
The space had been remodeled to allow the wheelchair to be placed there, by removing the dragon carriage’s seat. Their interactions did not disturb the sleeping girl, and so she remained there, in slumber.
Ram: “I shall not be left behind. Also, not like my pain will improve if I do get left behind. Actually, being separated from Emilia-sama with how I am now would put my life at risk. You trying to kill me?”
Subaru: “Calm down. I’ve never even said a single word about leaving you behind since the beginning. Also, if you were to be left behind, Emilia-tan would be too.”
Emilia: “Hmph! Subaru, there’s no way I’d let that happen.”
Subaru: “Liiiike I saaaaid, it’s fine! I just want to check on Ram!”
Emilia: “What do you want to check?”
Subaru: “Didn’t I say it…?”
Subaru gave a wry smile, as his earlier words had been forgotten because they had repeatedly jumped to conclusions. Seeing Emilia and Ram exchanging doubtful glances, Subaru continued,
Subaru: “Ram. We can tell that you aren’t your usual self, so if there’s something wrong, say something. Don’t try to hide stuff and fool us. Even if you do stuff like that, we’ll still help you, even if you don’t like it.”
After he pointed his finger at Ram and affirmed that, Ram made a rare look of shame.
Emilia put her hand on her mouth at her side, and let out a smile unintentionally, unable to contain. That first urge to laugh however was warded off, and Emilia merely relaxed her lips, looking pleased.
Emilia: “I think that side of Subaru is reaaally nice.”
Subaru: “…Eh!? Did you just fall in love again!?”
Ram: “Don’t talk like that with Rem sleeping in front of you, women’s harmful enemy.”
Subaru: “Women’s harmful enemy, not just women’s enemy!?”
Ram snorted her nose with a “Haa”, prompting Subaru’s voice to trail off into the distance.
After that, stretching her slender legs, and she recklessly tried to kick Subaru off of the dragon carriage’s steps.
Subaru: “Oh, h-hey! What are you doing, I’m going to fall!”
Ram: “Putting aside you falling, Barusu should normally be outside, not inside. Mount the prideful ground dragon, and frantically guarantee our dragon carriage’s safety. Do it, quickly.”
Subaru: “What do you mean quickly, listen to what I have to…”
Ram: “――I have listened to what I must. So, go.”
Ram asserted with an even sterner voice, and delivered an even sharper kick.
Having gotten a punt to the thigh, Subaru descended in dejection, and just before he went away from the dragon carriage, looks were exchanged with Emilia. She responded to that look by giving an acknowledging gesture with her chin, which had an “I know” underlying.
Subaru: “Guess that’ll be fine for now. But, anyways you should… Gah.”
A kick that felt like a surprise attack connected with his solar plexus, and Subaru fell off the dragon. Then, Ram hurriedly shut the carriage’s door, suddenly looked at Emilia as she let out a sigh. Then she spoke,
Ram: “…Emilia-sama, why are you making that look?”
Emilia: “No, it’s nothing. But, I just thought about how you’re kind of cute.”
Ram: “That’s a surprising opinion. How cheeky of Emilia-sama.”
Due to being teased Ram’s tongue slipped, eliciting a rare sight of her cheeks being stiffened to be seen. Emilia witnessed that change in Ram’s facial expression and smiled, appearing to become more and more happy.
Emilia: “Finally feel like showing that face to me too, the one you always show to Subaru?”
Ram: “…It was a slip of mind. Please forgive my impoliteness.”
Emilia: “I’m not really angry. I’m actually a little happy, it somewhat feels like you’re giving me trust when you do that. I was a little jealous of Subaru.”
Ram kept silent for a bit in response to Emilia’s innocent reply. Immediately after that, with a dumbfounded look while smoothing her hair, Ram――
Ram: “Emilia-sama, you have changed as well. When we first met, you only seemed like someone with resolve that was hard, but fragile, like glass.
Emilia: “Do I look a little stronger now?”
Ram: “And now, I think… You are like sweet glass turned into candy.”
Emilia: “Wow, Ram, you’re harsh.”
Emilia was smacked by Ram’s abusive words, and her voice finally boomed from being unable to bear it.
And in that manner, the girls resumed talking with each other inside the dragon carriage.
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――After a few hours, the conquer of the Augria Sand Dunes began.
They had become acquainted with the sandy soil after one hour in the dragon carriage; they were approximately ten kilometers east of the town of Mirula. With the dry sand and Miasma-laden wind growing stronger, and the prairie at their feet changing to desert, they had finally entered the Augria Sand Dunes proper.
Their setup was made up of one dragon carriage, and a ground dragon of the Gyras species to pull it. Running off to the side, was Subaru riding Patrasche, trekking along the sandy soil.
The flat-faced ground dragon wasn’t fast, but its heavy pacing gave off a feeling of stability. At first, Patrasche had seemed wary of her weird companion, but after a few hours of traveling together, it was as if she’d found a compromise with her partner, and dissatisfaction was not to be found on her highly prideful face.
???: “If I had to describe it, then I’d probably say that the dissatisfaction of this ground dragon is because of Betty, in fact.”
It was Beatrice, completely settled in Subaru’s arms. While holding the bridle and onto the curled-up girl, Subaru said “No no” as he shook his head.
Subaru: “That’s not right. Patrasche isn’t such an intolerant dragon.”
Beatrice: “…Subaru, it’d be wise of you to be more careful of how you perceive those around you, I suppose.”
She let out those words, grabbing onto the edge of her skirt as she sat sideways on the jet-black ground dragon.
Subaru’s dragon-riding skills were a lot better than they were before. Up to this point he had been simply spoiled by Patrasche’s consideration, but now he was at the level of a dragon-rider apprentice.
He sat on the saddle and held onto the bridle. Beatrice was in front of him, and he made sure to hold onto her from behind; they almost looked like experts at riding together.
Of course, the only ground dragon Subaru would ride was Patrasche, and this wasn’t the first time he rode her along with Beatrice. Thus, Beatrice was being too paranoid, no matter how he looked at it. That’s what he wanted to say.
Beatrice: “Very prideful ground dragons don’t want to let anyone other than their owner ride them, in fact. This ground dragon of Subaru’s is extraordinary, one-of-a-kind, I suppose. If I were alone, she definitely wouldn’t let me ride her, in fact.”
Subaru: “Isn’t that just because you’re bad at riding ground dragons?”
Beatrice: “If that was the reason, then you getting close with this ground dragon wouldn’t make sense, I suppose.”
It was just as she’d said.
If Patrasche liked a person based on their dragon riding skills, then Subaru should’ve failed the first test. Since that had not come to pass, there was a reason as to why this lady approved of Subaru.
And, in truth, Patrasche’s actual treatment towards everyone but Subaru was relatively harsh.
Subaru: “Well, not knowing why you’re liked really is a bad thing.”
Beatrice: “True, in fact. Subaru doesn’t have the looks to be liked for no reason, I suppose.”
Subaru: “…In other words, you have firm reasons to love me.”
Beatrice: “Of course, Betty is… Just what are you trying to make me say!?”
They were glued together, so he couldn’t dodge Beatrice’s assault, her face beet red. While getting struck lightly by her weak palm, Subaru said “Whoa, whoa” in an attempt to appease Beatrice. Then, Patrasche raised her upper body and shook them, as if displeased with the behavior they were displaying on her back.
Subaru: “Oh, what the!?”
As she had set her posture in a way that was like doing a wheelie on a bike, Subaru reflexively held tight onto Beatrice.
Normally they would not feel any swaying from the dragon or even the wind because of the Divine Protection of Wind Evasion, but certain extreme movements like the one just now would have effect, as well as things like angle changes from sudden turning.
The harassment was based on an understanding of those characteristics.
When Subaru put in his objection and glared at the back of Patrasche’s head, the ground dragon looked at Subaru and Beatrice for a second, squinting her eyes as if saying “You’ll bite your tongue”.
Subaru: “She’s kinda like Ram just considering how haughty she is. Seems like they’d get along, surprisingly.”
Beatrice: “Or maybe they’d clash with each other, and they wouldn’t come to an agreement at all, I suppose.”
Subaru and Beatrice exchanged deep thoughts and nodded at each other. Then,
???: “Subaru, Beatrice-sama. It is splendid seeing you guys being friendly with each other, but this would be a good time to put yourselves together in earnest.”
A voice speaking out from the side was sent towards the two who acted relaxedly.
At the driver box of the dragon carriage travelling alongside them, there was Julius, in charge of the reins. Rather than the fact that he was not alone, it seemed that the role of coachman was unpleasant and not very fitting for Julius, but he didn’t act like he cared about it.
That being said, perhaps he did not have the time to worry about that. Either way, at his side there was,
???: “I don’t mind onii-san and Beatrice-chan being friendly with each other, but if I’m ignored too much, I’ll pout.”
Having stated those words, giving them a look that didn’t fit her appearance―― Meili, sitting.
Meili was an essential member to deal with the Witchbeasts, and they would have to always use her for conquering the Augria Sand Dunes. Thus, as a lookout for the Witchbeasts living at the Sand Dunes, Meili was at the place where it would d be easiest for her to deal with them―― in other words, she was standing by at the driver box at the front of the dragon carriage.
Julius took up the role of staving off her boredom.
Subaru: “You have the Knight next to your side to escort you. He’s much more smart, stylish, and elegant than me.”
Meili: “I didn’t get more than half of what you’ve said. Plus, I’m fine with Knight-sama. I’m unhappy with Onii-san.”
Subaru: “With me?”
While playing with her braided hair, Meili glared at Subaru, her cheeks swollen in a pout.
Meili: “Onii-san made me come along, and so he must be forced to deal with me.”
Subaru: “Don’t say such unreasonable childish things. As you can see, that place is filled with Beako. Right?”
Beatrice appeared to shrugher shoulders in resentment, and Subaru looked at Meili again.
Pouting was a suitable action for her age, but her mood would have a big influence from now on down the road. Considering that, it would be bold to make light of Meili.
However, saying that really would make things unmanageable.
Subaru: “You’re quite right, however, we’ll have you fulfill your role first before you can say if it’s a right or a duty.”
Meili: “My role, hmm.”
Subaru: “We’ll be entering the most favorite Augria Sand Dunes soon. I don’t think the Witchbeasts will suddenly roar when we enter them, but when it does happen, calming them down will be up to you, Meili. You get that, right?”
Meili: “…Yeees. For someone who spoils Beatrice-chan, onii-san sure is a bully.”
He wasn’t being a bully to her, but even if he was taken as one, he would just have to cajole her.
Subaru felt like Beatrice seemed satisfied, looking at her with a side glance, and then raised his hand at Julius. After that, Jullius quietly acknowledged, gesturing with his chin.
Unfortunately for him, he would have to be the little lady’s sycophant. Moreover――
Subaru: “Ahh, I see it.”
Beatrice called out to him quietly, while Patrasche gave a faint neigh, as she glared at what laid in front. Those actions brought back his focus, and Subaru squinted.
He saw the tower, its contours so clear that it would be impossible to miss them from Mirula―― likewise, surface of sand surrounding that tower was visible.
Their magnificent arrival to the maze of sand surrounding the Pleiades Watchtower, the Augria Sand Dunes.
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In the Augria Sand Dunes, there was a particularly famous Sand Time, in which the Sand Wind would blow particularly strong.
The Sand Wind that would blow three times a day, morning, afternoon, and night, would carry sand and Miasma from the east towards the west, a disaster that would silently creep on people. This Sand Wind would be especially strong in the midnight hour, and it would continue to blow for a few hours.
As it was pretty much midnight, so at this time when the Sand Wind blew, their movement would be stifled.
Thus, they would conquer the Augria Sand Dunes during the day, little-by-little, with a few hours of break in the morning and afternoon, at the times the Sand Times would blow.
The grains of sand that fully covered the ground were miniscule, and just like the rumors had stated, it was terribly difficult to keep their footing, causing them to trip. Their march was slow, slow as a crawl; an irritating situation all around.
There was something about that situation which disappointed Subaru. That was――
Subaru: “There’s the pain of this Sand Wind and the poor footing, but… it isn’t as bad as I thought.”
Turning his face away from the wind blowing from windward, he pulled up the mouth cloth to secure his breathing. He faintly felt his teeth biting the sand, but this type of baptism was not very different from his time at Mirula.
The flying sand created a view of yellow, and he felt the sand tickling him in his clothes, but that was as far as its effects went. The fury of the dunes was insignificant.
Subaru: “When I first heard about the dunes, I even prepared myself on the assumption that it’d be deathly.”
Beatrice: “It’s because of the natural environment that there’s nothing green in here, in fact. The Miasma kills anything and everything, so it only has this sort of scenery spread out, I suppose. That is why rain even pours on these sand dunes, and the temperature doesn’t go extremely out of control, in fact.”
Subaru had a strong impression of the desert being a red-hot hell. He’d never stepped foot into a desert back at his other world, but in mediums like games and manga, the deserts all yielded impressions of hot sand.
For that reason, the severity of the Augria Sand Dunes was pleasant, in comparison to what he had initially imagined.
Subaru: “It wasn’t hot or cold at the nearest town, so I guess it’d be weird for the sand dunes to be an extremely hot hell. So, we only need to be careful of the wind and the Witchbeasts.”
Beatrice: “As well as getting lost… I suppose.”
One worry had disappeared, and Beatrice stifled Subaru’s feelings of optimism to stiffen up. In response to the point made by the girl in his arms, Subaru looked forward while being careful of the wind.
The Watchtower, its existence ever-present, loomed still in Subaru’s line of sight.
Subaru: “You bring up the question of getting lost, but it seems unnatural to miss that thing.”
Beatrice: “Betty thinks so too, in fact. However, it wouldn’t surprising if something happened, I suppose. I don’t know what type of cheat this Sage is, but the fact that nobody has ever reached them is proof, in fact.”
Of course, Subaru had no intentions of underestimating things.
Realistically speaking, it would be unlikely that they would miss their target considering it was a structure that huge, never mind getting lost. However, any prior challengers would have most likely thought the same thing.
Despite those thoughts in mind, he figured there should have been a reason as to why they had still not reached it.
Anything could happen. Just like Beatrice had pointed out, this was that sort of devilish place.
Subaru: “About that, I guess it’s about time we make the next backup.”
Holding his breath, Subaru looked back at the terrain they had just traversed.
On the sandy soil, the footsteps of Patrasche, on whom Subaru and Beatrice were riding, had been left behind, one-by-one. However, only the very latest ones would remain. And in time, too, they would be washed away, replaced, and hidden by the sand.
Nature itself had concocted such a natural trap.
Never mind the Watchtower at the front, the path they had traveled thus far would be hidden from them in eximious fashion.
However, that would only be true if these people were only able to take ordinary measures.
Subaru: “Seems like the previous one’s gone from sight. Alright, this is a good time.”
Subaru pulled on the bridle, directing Patrasche to veer towards the dragon carriage running parallel to them.
The wheels of the dragon carriage also left traces, as did the ground dragon’s spike-shaped footprints, but those were subjected to the same conditions as Patrasche’s. Thus, they had to devise something as a marks to follow.
Subaru: “Emilia-tan, please!”
Emilia: “――Okaaaay, got it.”
When he knocked on the dragon carriage from the outside, Emilia answered and showed up on the other side of the door.
Emilia’s whole body had been covered with a white robe for the sand, and Subaru, behind her―― was gazing and pointing at something in the far distance, a certain “something” that was faintly reflected in his eyes,
Subaru: “I’m sorry for having you work so much, but please, Sensei!”
Emilia: “Well, I’m having Subaru watch from outside. It’s not a big problem… What do you mean by «Sensei»?”
Subaru: “It’s the template when a request is made. Alright, alright, alright, please.”
Emilia: “Okay, I’ve been requested―― Hey!”
After that brief light-hearted exchange, she looked to the place Subaru was pointing towards. Emilia raised a listless shouting voice, the look in her eyes too cute to call a glare, and her magical power surged.
Immediately after, an enormous amount of Mana swirled in Emilia’s palm, and the magical power dashed swiftly through the sky, giving off the sense that its power increased as it accelerated. The sound it produced was like the very air had exploded, and it resounded throughout the vicinity.
――And then, after a few seconds, a huge ice tower stood on the path of the sandy plain.
Emilia: “Yeah, that was good.”
Confirming that the task was finished, Emilia smiled, looking somewhat satisfied with herself.
It wasn’t comparable in size to the Pleiades Watchtower, but it was still a very conspicuous silhouette for the Augria Sand Dunes. And so, an ice tower had been erected here and there along the route Subaru and the others had taken inside the Augria Sand Dunes, in successive intervals such that they would not lose sight of the path.
Subaru: “The footprints can’t be marks, but marks can be made with a more conspicuous method. This is the application of magic, eh.”
Emilia: “Even so, Subaru’s craft is very impressive. Nice thinking.”
Subaru: “This method won’t be any good if the sand dunes were hot.”
The ice Emilia created with her magic was fragile to temperature, perhaps because it didn’t go against the laws of nature. Based off that knowledge, were this a genuine desert, then maybe such a forbidden move would not have worked. However, it was a valid plan in these Sand Dunes.
Emilia’s standing ice tower was functioning as a landmark without a hitch. Worst-case scenario, if something really did happen that would force them to withdraw, they should be able to follow them and retreat.
Subaru: “This tower… yeah, it looks alright underfoot. I’m still scared of it possibly toppling over, though. Since its foundation seems to be on something fluid.”
Emilia: “I think it’s been pinned to the ground as hard as possible, so it’s all hunky-dory. You’re worried?”
Subaru: “Who even says «hunky-dory» these days… Ahh, alright.”
Subaru put aside his worry by teasing Emilia, and raised his head. Emilia seemed a wee bit displeased with that response, but for the time being she would just put a sarcastic smile on her face.
After that, he looked over Emilia’s shoulder; towards the inside of the dragon carriage behind her. For everyone inside, it should be the same as usual, but there was one person that he would rather not see remaining the same.
Subaru: “Where’s Anastasia?”
???: “What is it, Natsuki-kun? Lookin’ for me?”
Immediately after his gazed had wandered, Subaru jumped upon being called by a person’s voice.
Cutting into his line of sight, Anastasia peeked out from a bit to the side of Emilia. She looked down on a surprised Subaru, her teal eyes squinted ever so slightly.
Anastasia: “No need to get startled that much. Ain’t I deliberately stayin’ inside?”
Subaru: “I know that you are inside, but it was shocking because I didn’t expect you to appear from Emilia’s armpit like you’re growing out of it.”
Emilia: “…Hey, Subaru. I reaaally didn’t like the way you said that.”
Anastasia: “Unusual for me too, to be annoyed by somethin’ like that. What a coincidence.”
With both Emilia and Anastasia showing some dislike, Subaru got back on track. There was Beatrice shrugging her shoulders in his arms, but he turned to Anastasia for now.
Subaru: “We’ll be relying on your knowledge to conquer the Sand Dunes. Please guide us well, okay?”
Anastasia: “Natsuki-kun sure is a worrywart. I’ll be with’cha, so the outcome of this journey’s the same for us two… There’s no way I’d try and cut corners, ya know? Don’t’cha worry.”
Beatrice: “…Is it possible for someone to believe a fox so nonchalantly, I suppose?”
Replying to Anastasia’s words, Beatrice spoke with a voice so low that it could only be heard by Subaru. He was in complete agreement, but it would be wrong to provoke her by using that basis.
If he was going to say that, then opting to go on this campaign towards the Watchtower would have been a mistake in the first place. As of now, they should be using up all their strength to fulfill their respective roles without complaining.
Subaru: “Right, Anastasia.”
Anastasia: “Yes, Natsuki-kun. If somethin’ happens, I’ll let Julius know, and once we come near the place Echidna spoke about, I’ll report that too. Don’t worry, yeah?”
Anastasia―― Or rather, Eridna, did not seem displeased by Subaru’s cynical beckoning. It seemed like there would be no problem moving forward like this, for the moment being.
Emilia: “It seems like the wind has gotten stronger. Subaru, if there’s nothing else, then I’m going to close it, but…”
Subaru: “…Ahh, go ahead. Emilia-tan, I’ll leave the people inside up to you.”
Emilia: “Yeah, leave it to me. Subaru, you be nice to Beatrice, too.”
Beatrice: “No need to worry about that, I suppose. I’m satisfied, in fact.”
Emilia put her hand on the door, and after an exchange words, she went back inside and left. Beatrice responded to Emilia’s last joke with a light remark, the latter’s smile disappeared, blocked by the door.
Subaru now went around to the front of the dragon carriage, appearing next to the driver’s box.
Julius: “It appears like Emilia-sama’s landmarks are working proper. You are as clever as always.”
Subaru: “You can call it guile, you know.”
Julius: “I shan’t. I am jealous of your adaptability, being able to come up with ideas myself and others cannot with such ease. I really cannot craft these sort of evil ways.”
Subaru: “Guile sounds cuter than evil ways!”
Julius sat on the driver’s box, and he had a faint smile on his face, so faint that it was barely visible.
A white cloth was wrapped around his handsome face, so his expression couldn’t be seen. But even then, as they had been talking with each other in this past month, and Subaru could understand how much he was joking based off the tone of his voice.
Subaru: “Meili, how about you? Doing your job?”
Meili: “You’re gonna ask me that? Onii-san hasn’t run into bad animal-chans even once, and neither has the dragon carriage. That’s not proof of me wooorking.”
Upon peeking into the driver’s box, he saw Meili’s arranged in a pout, just as he expected. She was also wearing a cloak around her head because of the Sand Wind, and she answered Subaru’s question with a displeased-sounding voice.
In reaction to Meili’s answer, Subaru wiped off the sand off his head while regarding the path ahead.
Subaru: “Even if you say that, it’s hard to see the results of your hard work. I don’t know if the Witchbeasts haven’t showed up because of you, or if they just aren’t around here…”
Meili: “…Hmm, so that’s what you’re gonna saaay.”
Subaru said a careless thing, being disappointed by the high anticipations he possessed, as so far they had not faced any obstacles other than the sand and the wind. Immediately Meili spoke with a low toned voice, putting her cheeks in between her hands as if thinking of something as she sunk into silence.
Subaru honestly had a bad feeling about that.
Julius: “Subaru, apologize to her. It is clear that you have just said something improper.”
Subaru: “Y-you don’t have to tell me, I know. Uhh, Meili? I kinda was a bit mean now. Well, not kinda, but completely. Please don’t be in a bad mood. I wasn’t trying to be mean.”
Meili: “…Okaay, it’s fineee. It’s not like I’m mad or anythiiing. But, I think there’s a reason for what onii-san said too.”
Subaru: “O-oh. That’s good. Thankfully, you are much more mature than you loo…”
Meili: “――So I’ll make it clear why I’m here.”
Meili interrupted Subaru’s explanation and apology, and uttered some extremely disturbing words.
The unsettling sound caused Subaru and Julius to look at each other, and hurried to form a sentence that would appease her―― It was immediately after that.
Patrasche and the dragon carriage’s ground dragon both stepped hard on the ground, halting their movement moving. The ground dragons’ instincts had rapidly sensed something approaching them, alerting their master, the one holding the reins. Then, Subaru and Julius opened their eyes at the same time. There, they saw it.
Subaru & Julius: “――――”
In front of their eyes, the sandy surface suddenly began wriggling as if it possessed a will of its own, and something wriggling immediately came crawling out from beneath the sands. A terrifying animal, with a large amount of sand clinging onto its whole body, let out an unbelievably piercing cry es its gigantic mouth.
Neither arms nor legs were present on its body, and the way it bent its long and fat body back and forth was reminiscent of a snake. However, it had slimy-looking skin, its color similar to that of the sand, patterned with carved, equidistant lateral stripes, carrying along a horrible stench. Subaru only noticed its true identity once the head of the thing lowered.
It was no snake―― This, was an earthworm.
Its torso was so massive that Subaru could not wrap his arms around it; in fact, it seemed that its head and mouth were large enough to swallow four or five humans whole. The stink surrounding it was similar to a rotten smell, and the saliva, dripping from its oral cavity lined with fine teeth, made noise as it evaporated the sand.
The eyeless head turned towards them, acting as if it was sniffing a smell.
At this moment, Subaru had completely forgotten about breathing. He also felt Patrasche’s thoughts blanking, being transmitted across the bridle, and Beatrice grabbed strongly onto Subaru’s clothes while still in his arms.
As soon as he thought of its sense of smell, Subaru remembered the smell of the Witch that he carried. If the Witchbeast reacted to that, or something else reacted to it, this group would be――
Meili: “Ahh geez, you stiiink. Hurry up and leave. Get looost.”
In the presence of Subaru and the others who could not avoid letting their fear show, Meili let out an adequate voice.
Those words caused the gigantic earthworm to turn towards Meili, but it immediately listened to that little girl’s orders, and the giant body crawled back into the hole it had dug. A few seconds later, the hole that the earthworm came from had been completely covered with sand, and only silence reigned within the area.
Julius: “…That was a Sand Earthworm, most likely. It is a Witchbeast that prefers to lurk beneath sandy soil, but it was a little bigger than I thought.”
Subaru: “A little? How little?”
Julius: “To my knowledge, I thought they would have been as big as a male adult’s arms.”
Even if the Earthworm that had appeared was of that size, it would still be big enough to pose a grotesque threat. But, that Sand Earthworm was hundreds to thousands times larger than the ones in Julius’s knowledge.
It was said that the Witchbeasts native to the Augria Sand Dunes were more ferocious, but perhaps they should have considered the difference in scale as well. Anyhow,
???: “W-what was that loud voice…?”
A small window belonging to the dragon carriage’s opened, and Emilia showed her face from the window that connected the driver box to the inside of the carriage.
Even if she had not witnessed that Sand Earthworm, she would have heard that Witchbeast’s roar. Emilia looked worried, but Subaru was incapable of speaking right away.
Then, Meili took Subaru’s place as he tensed up, and faced Emilia.
Meili: “No need to wooorry. I just wanted to let you guys know how blessed you are because you don’t have to worry about that thiiing.”
Subaru: “Ahh geez, we really can’t thank you enough, Meili-san!”
He loosened up thanks to Meili’s words, and Subaru gave her a generous compliment that came from the bottom of his heart. Emilia seemed astonished at that change; after Meili’s own surprise, she immediately appeared to be satisfied.
Meili: “Reeeally? You sure? Does onii-san see me in a new light now?”
Subaru: “Yeah, I seriously respect you. I sincerely felt just how dangerous this place would be, had you not come along. The Augria Sand Dunes are scary! Scaryyyyyyyy!!”
He now understood one reason as to why the many reckless adventurers had not come back after daring to conquer this place. Indeed, it was certainly a place for reckless people.
It was the absurdity of fooling themselves by believing that the baptism of the sand dunes would be easy. Hooray for peace. Peace is the best.
Beatrice: “You’re flattering her quite a lot, I suppose. Disgusting, in fact.”
Subaru: “Shut up! Weren’t you scared out of your wits too!? Ahhh, scary!”
Beatrice: “B-Betty was only going along with Subaru because you were nervous, I suppose. Don’t get the wrong idea, in fact.”
Subaru: “Don’t act so tough. You pissed yourself a little just like I did, right? I can tell.”
Beatrice: “Piss, I suppose!?”
Their quarrel started like a comedy episode, but nobody could blame them for it at the time.
It seemed like Witchbeasts would approach them if they caused a fuss, but the power of the being who countered that had been adequately proven. Thus, even Julius did not attempt to stop their quarrel.
However, he simply readjusted his consciousness, realizing that the ice they were walking on was thinner than he had imagined.
That was the first day of the conquering of the Sand Dunes, to which they could look back as having been worth it.
※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※
Suddenly, light ran through the sky, and penetrated the wind.
With a violent sound, the ice tower shattered in half and crumbled, having been hit directly.
The pulverized ice tower immediately returned to Mana, and every little bit of it that fell onto the surface was swallowed by the sand, disappearing from the world without any ruin, without a trace.
The light continued several times more, darting through the sky in succession.
Coincidentally, the number matched the number of times the silver-haired girl had established the ice tower.
Nobody knew what that meant, at this point of time.
However, the conquest of the labyrinth of sand was by no means a simple matter. That much was an established fact.
 – No, this is not a translation mistake. Despite it being stated it’d been a month since Priestella earlier, here it’s a month and a half (一ヶ月半).
 – The word used here has a bit of a pun (魔境), since “魔” can be read as both “devil”, like in “half-devil” (半魔), and “magic/magical” (魔女, this means “Witch”, or literally, “magic woman”).